As of August, 2009, same sex couples in Wisconsin can address some of the disparities in the legal rights afforded to married heterosexual couples by officially registering their relationship as a “domestic partnership” with the office of their local county clerk. The main impact of Wisconsin’s Domestic Partnership Law was to amend a variety of other state laws to grant same sex partners, in certain situations, the same level of recognition and legal authority that have traditionally been provided to heterosexual spouses and family members. Although Wisconsin’s unfortunate constitutional amendment still prevents same sex couples from enjoying the full range of rights and presumptions afforded to legally recognized marriages, the Domestic Partnership Law offers some good reasons to consider officially registering the partnership, not the least of which is that some of the prospective benefits it affords are only available to members of a registered domestic partnership.
Some of the benefits offered by the Domestic Partnership Law include:
1. The right to compensation when your partner is the victim of a crime, and the right to be notified when the offender is released into the community.
2. The right to file suit and receive compensation for the wrongful death of your partner.
3. The privilege to refuse to testify against your partner with respect to any private communication during your domestic relationship.
4. The right to consent to your partner’s admission into a long term care facility and to have private visitation time.
5. The right, under certain circumstances, to disclosure of your partner’s mental health or AODA treatment records.
6. The right to disclosure of your partner’s medical records, so long as your partner has identified you as a person authorized to receive disclosure.
7. The right to family medical leave to care for a seriously partner.
8. The right to receive workers’ compensation or other benefits upon the death of your partner.
The Domestic Partnership Law also addresses some of the property rights issues that same sex couples face upon the death of one partner. For example, it creates a presumption that the listing of both partners on title to property establishes a joint tenancy with title automatically transferring upon death to the surviving spouse. It also grants domestic partners many of the same preferences that a heterosexual spouse would enjoy with respect to the administration of the estate of a deceased partner, including equal treatment when there is no will or when a will unintentionally excludes the surviving partner.
The Domestic Partnership Law is a step in the right direction toward equalizing the treatment of committed couples irrespective of gender, but it still leaves a lot of legal issues unresolved. Even if you register your domestic partnership, you and your partner will still want to strongly consider taking the extra steps necessary to maximize your ability to act on behalf of and in the best interest of the other. Some of the standard estate planning documents that attorneys regularly recommend to married clients are often even more important to same sex couples, including wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives. If you and your partner have significant assets that can’t be cleanly transferred by title or beneficiary designation, such as interests in a business, you will want to consider even more detailed documentation, such as a Domestic Partnership Agreement and possibly a living trust.